COLUMBIA - If the football game between Clemson and South Carolina on Saturday had been played at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, one has to think the stadium DJ would have been spinning the vocals of a young Britney Spears.
Though not nearly as bad as the Tigers' 56-7 beatdown of USC last year in Death Valley, the Gamecocks' vow of "Never again" rang hollow at Williams-Brice Stadium. Clemson, ranked third in the College Football Playoff entering the game, led 20-0 at halftime and went up 34-0 before finishing with a 34-10 triumph.
The Tigers improved to 11-1 on the season and will likely move into the top spot in the CFP after No. 1 Alabama's loss to Auburn on Saturday and No. 2 Miami's loss to Pittsburgh on Friday. Clemson will meet Miami in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game on Saturday with a berth in the 4-team CFP on the line.
“I’m really proud of our guys for showing up and being ready,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, who picked up his 100th career victory. “Every week for us is a playoff mentality, that’s just the way it is. To see our guys embrace that is pretty special. “I love the chemistry of our team and the leadership of our team, because they all know every single week it’s all in. It’s everything you’ve got and to see them embrace that is pretty special.”
USC, fell to 8-4 and had a 2-game winning streak snapped. The Gamecocks won five of their six previous games.
"I'm extremely disappointed," said second-year USC head coach Will Muschamp. "I told our team after (the game that) we need to learn how to handle the moment better, obviously. We did not and that's something we addressed at the half.
"At the end of the game, I talked to the team in the locker room. I'm etremely proud or our seniors and the progress we've made in the last two years. I'm extremely disappointed with tonight. We've got to handle it better and we didn't. We lost our cool at times in some situations."
The Tigers dominated USC, especially from the second quarter on. They finished with 466 yards of total offense compared to just 207 for Carolina. USC actually outgained Clemson 66-55 in the first quarter.
Tiger quarterback Kelly Bryant completed 23 of 34 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns. Tee Higgins had three catches for 84 yards and Hunter Renfrow had four receptions for 75 yards and two touchdowns. On the first play from scrimmage of the second half, Bryant hit Renfrow with a short pass and he turned it into a 61-yard catch-and-run touchdown, breaking and causing seven missed tackles along the way. That made it 27-0 and pretty much put the victory in the bag for the Tigers.
"I felt like I was running the triple option at Socasteee (High School in Myrtle Beach, where he played quarterback)," Renfrow said. "It was a good play. I looked back on the flag (a facemask against USC) and was worried about that."
The teams traded punts on their first possessions, but the Tigers had USC starting at its 1-yard line following a 43-yard punt by Will Spiers. After a 3-yard run by running back A.J. Turner, Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley threw the ball straight to Clemson cornerback Ryan Carter. He returned it 12 yards for a touchdown and placekicker Alex Spence added the extra point to make it 7-0 with 6:50 left in the first quarter.
"At the end of the day, I throw the ball," said Bentley, whom Muschamp said should gone in another direction. "I have to be responsible for every pass that I throw so that's 100 percent on me. I have to be better than that."
USC punter Joseph Charlton got off a booming 55-yard punt that had a chance to be downed inside the 5 but instead bounced into the end zone for the second touchback after a punt in the game. The Tigers responded with a 9-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard scoring run by running back Tavien Feaster with 8:12 remaining in the second quarter to make it 14-0.
A big play on the drive was a 23-yard completion from Bryant to running back Travis Etienne to move them from their 23 to the 47. Later in the drive, Clemson was facing third down and 10 when Bryant connected with Higgins for a 24-yard gain to the USC 29. A pass interference call and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against USC set the Tigers up at the Carolina 6. Feaster broke off a 5-yard run before scoring the touchdown.
After forcing a 3-and-out series, the Tigers took control of the game with a 10-play, 79-yard scoring drive that took over six minutes off the clock. The big play of the drive was a 40-yard completion from Bryant to Higgins. That helped set up a 4-yard TD pass from Bryant to Renfrow with 1:59 left in the first half. Spence missed the extra point, leaving the halftime score 20-0.
"Really, the one drive was disappointing defensively," Muschamp said. "I felt like other than that, we played them pretty decently. I thought we played well in space. We had some pretty good guys in space. I think we played well in space to that point.
"I felt like we needed to make a play or two here or there. They're very aggressive. They create a lot of one-on-one matchups. I felt like we could win one-on-ones down the field, and we weren't able to do that."
Clemson's final touchdown came on a 5-yard run by Etienne with 2:47 left in the third quarter to make it 34-0.
"I think we are starting to play our best football, I really do," Swinney said. "That's where I want to be. As you get into that final stretch here you want to have confidence, you want to have depth, you want to have good health and you want to feel like you have some rhythm and momentum."
South Carolina finally got on the scoreboard on a 40-yard field goal by Parker White with 13:21 remaining in the fourth quarter. Bentley connected with wide receiver Bryan Edwards for a 38-yard TD pass with 2:45 left in the game.
Bentley competed 16 of 29 passes for 126 yards. However, he was 6-for-8 in the fourth quarter for 77 yards.
Ty'Son Williams, the former Crestwood High School standout, had 13 rushes for 53 yards and caught two passes for 13 yards.
Turner, USC's leading rusher, went out on USC's second offensive series with what Muschamp deemed a high ankle sprain.